No Newspapers, No Democracy!
01 December, 2011

 

“Tbilisi government wants to eat the press”

If we are to believe Georgian experts and politicians, the Authorities always take on the mass media when they face real political rivals. This time, their attack is targeting press distribution booths. Two days ago, Press Association initiated a protest rally in front of the City Mayor’s Office that gathered many media representatives to launch a challenge against the controversial move of Tbilisi Authorities. Eliso Chapidze, representative of Resonance newspaper and one of the rally organizers, told us that they prepared an appeal to the EU and heads of other international organizations to seek their support.

 

TV companies Maestro and Kavkasia, as well as Internet news publications expressed their solidarity with the print media. The rally participants wore “No Newspaper, No Democracy” labels on their chests.

The new project of the city mayor’s office envisages a tender and a subsequent installation of new 1000 booths around the city, in most cases exactly in the locations of press distribution booths. Oddly enough, no one touched booths belonging to the Liberty Bank, Wide Distribution, Nugeshi or Two Minutes.

Everything started from the Rose Revolution, i.e. the year of 2003. The newly elected President Saakashvili was on a trip abroad. There a foreign journalist posed a media-related question to him. He replied that it was better to watch television in Georgia then to read the Georgian printed media because Georgian TV coverage was thorough unlike the press coverage. Certainly, his comment was met with an adequate reaction back in Georgia. However, no one could have imagined after this incident that soon masked men would swarm into TV Imedi. Shortly after, the TV company management underwent a drastic overhaul on par with a striking U-turn in the company ideology. As for the booths, the Mayor’s Office started to fight them a few years ago. At the time the main target were press distributors who were forced to dismantle dozens of press booths from central locations of Tbilisi. The vacant positions were filled by so called Prime Time press booths of a certain company called Wide Distribution.

As revealed during the protest rally, the largest network of booths is tied to the names and interests of former Defense Minister Kezerashvili and the City Mayor Ugulava himself. Other press distributors however were completely unlucky in this regard because for years the ,Mayor’s Office has been refusing them to give permission to put up even a single booth despite the multiple formal requests on the part of press distributors. Therefore, quite a large portion of media expressed its utter distrust to the company called Wide Distribution which was controlled by the Government and did not allow its publications into the booths of that company.

At the same time, Georgian Press Association sent a formal request to the Mayor’s Office, which read: “we want to express our surprise and concern that despite so many appeals of press distributors and publishers the Mayor’s Office cannot (did not) find places for press, book and magazine selling booths, while every democratic country realizes significance of the issue and therefore creates suitable conditions for such products to be sold in busy locations. In this way, governments of democratic countries are trying to support timely and multi-faceted delivery of news to the population and boost interest of the population towards printed products that in general enhance education levels.”

“These booths are very crucial. We will look closely at the developments. In the future, adequate actions against the Authorities will ensue without fail,” – declared prominent journalist Ia Antadze. Trade in press and other printed products will never be as profitable as cigarette commerce or fast food. It is therefore impossible for a press distributor to step up a decent fight during the auction against a rival who comes from much more profitable commercial areas.

The protest rally participants aired their suspicions that during the auction planned by the Authorities prices could be raised too high artificially so that the Governmental favorites win.

“Any physical or legal person in association with the Mayor’s Office is capable of naming unreasonably high prices during the auction and in this licentious way beat honest rivals only to have his own pledged rent reduced “legally” later thanks to specific provisions of the agreement. Thus, with such provisions there is no room for healthy competition. Everything is faked. It’s a fact that the Tbilisi government wants to eat the press,” – such views were prevailing among protest participants.

“The Authorities are trying to strike the print media hard. After the fairy tales propagated by the Mayor’s Office that the press booths are to be removed just because they distort appearance of the city and that they have never ever seen in any country newspaper sellers on streets, I am inclined to think that the Authorities are up to something evil,” –notes Mamuka Ghlonti, General Director of TV Company Maestro.

The protest rally dabbed “I read newspapers” were joined by representatives of political parties such as Christian-Democrats, Republicans, Labourists, People’s Party, as well as non-governmental organizations.

Political opposition too are crying foul about the new project of the Mayor’s Office calling this innovation of the Tbilisi Government an attack on free media. David Berdzenishvili, one of the Republican leaders, stated that the Authorities take to oppressing media every time there is a strong political opponent appearing on the scene.

“Exactly the same happened in 2007, when Saakashvili was facing a serious rival – Levan Gachechiladze. At the time, he resorted to identical technique. So, today too the Authorities feel real danger and go to all lengths to retain power,” – opines Berdzenishvili.

The Mayor’s Office issued a press release and explained that should press distributors wish so, they may enter into agreements with auction winners and continue selling press together with other products. However, the practice shows that such a way of selling press brings much less revenue than the press-only trade does. Accordingly, mere cooperation with the new press selling companies is bound to prove disastrous for current press distributors.

One of the newly introduced provisions says that, considering changing economic conditions, fees fixed for the use of the permission can be revisited on mutual agreement of both sides. The protest rally participants see a potential of foul play originating from this provision.

“As much people must express their protest about this move of the City Government as possible. Some people cannot still believe that such things can ever happen. However, we have already seen examples of booth dismantling on Tbilisi streets. Press selling places become empty. It already affects circulation of newspapers. They chose to crack down mostly on those booths which are located in central areas and naturally generate higher revenues. Press distribution is in fully fledged peril now. Such approach means they can go and destroy any enterprise, and then propose to owners that they should take part in dubious, shady auctions so that if they win and pay for it they could acquire the right to establish the destroyed enterprise anew,” – laments about the situation Lasha Tughusi, Chair of the Press Association.

As a rule, the press booths are standing in central, crowded locations and enjoy tax and rent allowances. So they do not need to sell food products other then press.

Eliso Chapidze, a representative of Resonance newspaper and a rally participant stated to us that protest rallies would continue next week too without fail, and that the next stage would be going to the residence of the President to stage a rally there.

“We will do everything to have the Authorities take their hands off from press. We would not stop. The Actions will be held permanently. In addition, we have already prepared letters and appeals to international organizations such as the European Union, European Parliament, diplomatic missions accredited in Georgia and so on,” – noted Eliso Chapidze.

She added that Georgian Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili expressed desire to meet the Press Association. He has come forward with an initiative to try to find a way out of the problem jointly. Before the planned meeting takes place on Friday, Chapidze cannot think of specific mechanisms that could be in the pipeline.